A northern exit for trains out of the planned $600 million port terminal at the former Charleston Navy base is off the table for North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who’s based his redevelopment dreams on a promise from state officials that tracks would head south, not north, of the site.  

State rail officials, however, believe Summey’s preferred alternative — a pair of rail facilities to the south of the port property — would sabotage already-stressed local roadways and cripple the flow of commerce through the port.

One well-placed community leader described this debate as a “shit storm��� — one that currently has North Charleston squaring off against a host of state, federal, and local officials.  

Far from the smoking guns, fiery letters, and inflamed rhetoric, it’s clear from satellite images that the new port site and the variety of proposed solutions present significant infrastructure problems — all of which involve hundreds of millions of dollars.

It’s not just a matter of land constraints, real and huge as they are. The simple physics of moving vast numbers of trains in and out of the Neck area would be an awesome undertaking on the best of days.

Jeff McWhorter, president of South Carolina Public Railways, described some of the proposals by public officials and private interests as literal roadblocks and logistical nightmares “tantamount to trying to force trains through a bottleneck that leads to a dead end.���

What You Really, Really Want

Anyone wanting to get an earful from Mayor Summey need only utter the phrase “north access��� to get him going.

“I told them, ‘No’,��� he says. “I don’t know why they don’t believe me.���

Summey’s rage seems grounded in his dissatisfaction with the game being played between the rail companies, private developers, state legislators, and port lobbyists, and an apparent dissatisfaction that he wasn’t invited. He also sees it as the State Ports Authority reneging on a deal — codified in a 15-page memorandum of understanding — that guaranteed North Charleston wouldn’t object to the federal permitting of the Navy base project if rail access was kept south of the port site.

“Why agree to a memorandum of understanding with the port if that agreement wasn’t going to protect the City of North Charleston?��� he says. “And why is everybody talking about these matters and making plans and filing legislation without even talking to us?���

Summey sees the Ports Authority’s hand in all this, brandishing an e-mail he obtained from an unnamed source that was sent by port lobbyist Barbara Melvin to a staff member for Congressman Henry Brown (R-S.C.). The e-mail mentions the debate over dual access to the Navy base and possible alternative sites for a transfer facility.

Melvin makes it clear that if a proposal for northern access reaches the funding stage, the ports authority shouldn’t be the entity requesting the funds. Otherwise, the authority would run the risk of inspiring North Charleston’s wrath.  

They have good reason to worry.

“Quite honestly, if they try to back out of this agreement now, North Charleston will fight it in every way that it can,��� Summey says. “Our whole redevelopment vision was predicated on that memorandum.���

But McWhorter says there was one huge flaw in crafting the agreement. Neither the city nor the port consulted with the railroad companies about how best to serve the new terminal or what technical challenges might be encountered if one route were chosen over another. Further, neither the port nor the city have direct authority over the railroads, which are private corporations that work directly with the shipping companies.

The Charleston peninsula is transected by two major east-west rail lines, both owned and operated by CSX Transportation, and a shorter line owned by Norfolk Southern which winds its way through the proposed Noisette development north of the port site through the old Navy base.

Norfolk Southern is allowed to use the more central of CSX’s lines to access Charleston’s downtown port terminals, but CSX has been zealous in protecting its exclusive right to the line that runs just south of the port.

“It’s a perfectly understandable position,��� McWhorter says. “Imagine you had a Piggly Wiggly, and all of a sudden, public officials came along and said, ‘Sorry, but you have to provide shelf space to Food Lion, too.’���

For much of the past year, McWhorter and others have been trying to resolve the impasse, but they’ve made little headway.

The Northern Pitch

As an alternative, Norfolk Southern has proposed the development of a container transfer facility on the planned site of the Clemson Restoration Institute. It would serve both railroads (accessing the site from the north), and would be operated by Public Railways.

“Both Norfolk Southern and CSX are agreeable to a single [facility] operated by Public Rail that would serve them both,��� McWhorter says. “CSX, to my knowledge, has not given any opinion on the Clemson site.���

Mayor Summey has. In fact, he’s already arguing those involved in these talks missed a key point: North Charleston has yet to fully convey the property to Clemson, he says, and he intends to hold that process up for as long as it takes to resolve the rail dispute to his satisfaction.

McWhorter believes there are very compelling reasons why access to and from the north is the best of all proposals. First, the rail infrastructure exists, albeit in the form of 1930s-era tracks which would have to be replaced by modern steel to accommodate the heavy loads.

“That’s not such a big deal, in the scheme of things,��� McWhorter says. “The problem is the existing tracks run right through the middle of Noisette.���

Noisette is a 3,000-acre planned community in the relics of the old Navy base that encompasses guidelines for sustainable redevelopment and includes a 340-acre, mixed-use, urban revitalization called the Navy Yard at Noisette.

McWhorter points to the existing rail route through the property on a large map.“We don’t want it there either,��� he says.

One proposal would be to relocate the track, having it effectively skirt around the perimeter of Noisette. And the work wouldn’t entirely be for the benefit of the developer: The current track has a 33 degree curvature in it, an acceptable feature in the era of smaller train cars, that would need to be removed to accommodate the new traffic.

McWhorter says other proposals for using the north access include revising the plans for developing Noisette into a distribution and warehouse center that would be mirrored by the proposed transfer facility south of the port site.

When that proposal was presented to Mayor Summey, he flatly rejected it, saying that all “north access��� rail plans would disturb the city’s longstanding and long-range redevelopment plans.

John Knott, president and CEO of the Noisette Co., has also strongly rejected any proposal that includes access to the new terminal from the north, warning that any attempt by the legislature to force such a plan would result in a lengthy and costly court battle.

Last week, state lawmakers approved a proposal — through an amendment tucked inside the state budget — to transfer the property rights of the rail line at the north end of the Navy base to the S.C. Department of Commerce to provide northern access if a private agreement can’t be reached between the rail companies. The budget should soon be on the governor’s desk for approval.

Suggesting another potentially dooming delay, Knott says the port’s federal environmental permits were based on promises that the new terminal would not be served by rail. Reneging on that could lead a federal court to enjoin the ports authority from further development at the Navy base until the permits are revisited and the rail access is considered.

The Southern Pitch

Entrepreneurs have long considered the Macalloy property, an industrial site that sits directly south of the new terminal, to be a prime location for an expanded freight transfer operation. Developer Robert Clement, a member of the partnership that owns the property, has been working closely with CSX to bring that vision to fruition.

Clement told the City Paper last fall that the issue would have to be resolved by the railroads. Then, last month, he floated another possible solution: Developing the 180-acre Promenade property on the south side of the Macalloy site for port container use, possibly as a transfer facility for Norfolk Southern.

Clement wasn’t blue-skying it, though; he contracted a nationally respected transportation consultant to review the site and then pitched it to municipal officials. Summey has publicly embraced the concept. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has indicated that the idea warrants further exploration.

But McWhorter, who would actually have to move trains on and off the site, thinks the proposal is rife with operational inefficiencies and other challenges, beginning with the $100 million asking price for the site.

“The state would be hard-pressed to explain such an expenditure for the benefit of a single private company,��� he says.

Then there’s the fact that Norfolk Southern doesn’t currently have any way to access the site, and there’s the matter of the 1,200 to 1,400 feet of marsh that would have to be bridged to get train cars from the site to South Carolina Public Railways’s yard along East Bay Street.

And therein lies perhaps the biggest problems with the proposal — a couple of simple matters Einstein used to grapple with: space and time.

Today, the average container-bearing train falls somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 feet long, with projections that the railroads will opt for trains between 6,000 and 8,000 feet long once international trade begins to ramp up again in earnest.

The longest track in the South Carolina Public Rail yard along East Bay Street is a mere 1,800 feet. That means that transferring cargo from one track to another is going to require blocking intersections at Immigration, Romney, Brigade, and Meeting streets for an undetermined amount of time. It would also delay traffic entering and exiting the Columbus Street port terminal.

McWhorter says as he understands it, the proposal would call for operating four to six of these trains a day. In the meantime, provisions would also have to be made to accommodate the daily train that moves BMWs between port and the automaker’s facilities in the Upstate, as well as other, routine but smaller train operations.

“Frankly, we just don’t have the capacity to accommodate that much activity. Every time we built one of those trains, no other traffic would be able to get into the port,��� McWhorter says. “That’s why I likened the scenario to a bottleneck.  And if there’s one hiccup, you shut everything down.’ ���

Mayor Summey, for one, doesn’t feel that there’s any reason to rush into a compromise. “You know, just the other day, I drove by the port terminals, and it really is the saddest thing,��� he says. “The terminals are largely empty. So it’s not like there’s this huge demand for rail access today. It’s not as if we don’t have time to work this out.���